Friday, May 27, 2005

Bandwagon or Boondoggle?

"...And now I'm back to let you know
I can really shake 'em down"

-- from "Do You Love Me" by Berry Gordy, Jr. (1962)

by F. T. Rea

Have you been Downtown lately? Seen as wallowing in despair only a few years ago, Richmond’s downtown has several major construction projects in various stages of being realized. Mammoth department store Thalhimers, a hub of the retail whirl that dominated that landscape for most of the 20th century, is gone. Most of the failed 6th Street Marketplace -- a bitter symbol of Downtown Richmond’s more recent period of decline, folly and official malfeasance -- has been swept away, too.

A new federal courthouse is being built at 7th and Broad Streets. To the west, the refurbishing of one old theater is underway and three more live-stage venues are slated to be constructed. There’s a plan to convert what was the Miller and Rhoads department store into a hotel. The John Marshall Hotel building is on its way to becoming a luxury apartment complex. Corporate giant Philip Morris is poised to create a $300 million research center a few blocks north of Broad. Looking eastward, with trains chugging through Main Street Station, once again, some see the shoehorning of a new baseball stadium into Shockoe Bottom as doable.

This piece will deal only with Mayor L. Douglas Wilder’s high profile refusal to hop onboard what was once thought to be an unstoppable theater-building bandwagon of the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation.

The VPAF is already in the process of renovating the Carpenter Center (formerly the Loew’s), to the tune of $28 million. The total price tag on the VPAF vision for a spectacular new performing arts center to open in 2007 on the Thalhimers block is $93 million. It calls for building three new stages -- a performance hall, a community playhouse and a jazz club -- on the old Thalhimers site. That figure above doesn’t include what the same outfit wants to spend on renovating three other old theaters -- the National, the Landmark (formerly the Mosque) and the Empire.

As the VPAF plans (see rest heavily on convincing the Commonwealth of Virginia and the City of Richmond to throw large sums into the kitty, elected officials should take an interest in how that nonprofit organization raises and handles money. As well, how wise the VPAF was in developing its original strategy is still a proper matter for them to scrutinize.

Accordingly, Mayor Wilder has asked the VPAF some questions that its president, former adman Brad Armstrong, has done an awkward job of answering. That Armstrong gave the appearance of resenting being asked at all seems odd, even worrisome.

Speaking of being worried, I still wonder how much the VPAF knows about the business side of the performing arts game. The one VPAF official with actual hands-on show biz experience, Joel Katz (formerly the Carpenter Center’s general manager), was fired recently. After the sudden dismissal of Katz is better understood, and it ought to be, someone -- perhaps Hizzoner? -- ought to ask the VPAF just what it actually knows about establishing or operating theaters. Who's left with any industry experience?

Note: I ran a movie theater (the Biograph) for nearly 12 years. Back then, every week, I listened dozens of helpful movie-goers tell me just how to run the place better and, of course, which movies to play. So, I'm familiar with the idea that lots of people imagine they know how to operate a theater without any experience in the entertainment business.

Here are a few more questions: What kind of town has Richmond been, with regard to the business side of entertainment? How well do plays and other touring attractions gross here, as compared to other cities? What do national promoters and movie distributors think of the Richmond market? Since cutting edge, ambitious nightlife venues here have tended to crash and burn in recent decades, what has the VPAF done to understand the whys? How well does it understand why smart private money has avoided building new theaters or night clubs in that same neighborhood for decades? This matters!

There’s a volunteer watchdog organization in town, Save Richmond (see, which asserts that the VPAF all but ignored input from most of the local pros -- the folks who have worked in Richmond’s entertainment industry as the talent, the producers, the bookers, and so forth. If that’s true, it’s not a good sign.

Armstrong’s position that Richmond ought to stay with the original program, even though his organization’s fundraising performance failed to meet its published goals, may have been good enough for those on City Council. But it obviously struck Mayor Wilder as presumptuous.

At this point -- all blue sky stories aside -- doesn’t the VPAF have a fallback plan? Is this really an all-or-nothing situation? Can’t we finish up one theater, fill it up a few times, pay some bills. Then, perhaps, we build a second theater, etc.

The VPAF has done such a poor job of selling this deal to John Q. Public -- who may not easily imagine himself attending an opera or symphony show -- that it’s difficult to weigh what real merit aspects of the plan might have. The concept of establishing a modern theater/night club district in that area, where it thrived 100 years ago, doesn't seem wrongheaded.

However, if you made that same area an enterprise zone where Richmond's stifling seven percent admissions tax wasn't scraped off the top of ticket sold, private money might be easier to find. That tax has played a hidden but significant role in hobbling theaters and clubs for a long time.

A glance at the VPAF’s board, which includes familiar names such as Bliley, Cantor, Markel, Massey, Reynolds, Robins, Rosenthal, Scott, Thalhimer and Ukrop offers some insight as to why Armstrong might think he can trump Wilder's moves. But since the well-heeled arts-lovers who support the VPAF’s four state-of-the-art stages on one block concept don’t seem to want to risk much of their own money, the VPAF still needs a lot of public money -- the voters’ money.

So far, City Council has decided to stay on the build-it-and-they-will-come bandwagon. This bunch doesn’t seem to grasp that with 80 percent of the voters behind him, as long as Wilder successfully positions himself as moving to prevent another 6th Street Marketplace-like boondoggle then his foes' chances in the court of public opinion aren't all that good.

This imbroglio shouldn't be about supporting art, or not, so much as it should be about what constitutes proper planning. If the focus of concern moves from money to bona fide know-how, watch out standing too close to the sputtering VPAF bandwagon. As more fat cats and wannabes jump off of it, one of them might land on you.

-- 30 --

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


This is going to take awhile. I ask for everyone's forebearance.

You are forgetting a massive major component part of this Performing Arts Center effort: that the entire project was based on the existence of TheaterVirginia. That almost half-century old institution which was at the time Richmond's only Equity house and a member of the League of Regional Theaters, was allowed to die. It seems strange that nobody rushed in to save it at the time when it needed the financial support of many of the same people who are now clamoring to build this Glass Palace of Art on Broad Street.

So the Performing Arts Center endeavor is based on a false premise. It suddenly became a space for the symphony -- and that essential organization has long needed a proper and good place in which to perform. Problem is, it should've gotten one about 25 years overelooking the river. Instead, in the mid-1980s, when Richmond's stupid and chiseling city council was desparately trying to cover its crimes and errors, a bank was subsidized to stay in the city and allowed to build its "Ministry of Fear" on the bluffs of Manchester. This colossal error of building (it ain't architecture) was supposed to generate activity on that side of the world -- but it failed. The activity occurring there today is sparked by Plant Zero and the several entrepreneurial groups and individuals who've put shops into tired old commercial buildings, and made swank apartments and condos in former warehouses and factories.

That the city has hired outside developers to smash down the town's midsectiion is the pathetic legacy of the dumb Project One disaster of the late 1970s that was borne out of the Vietnam-era thinking of "bombing the village to save it." This bequeathed to Richmond the stupid Coliseum, offiices at 6th and Broad that are completely occupied by government and ultimately the debacle of Sixth Street Marketplace that has been conveniently rubbed out as though it never existed.

The famous (or infamous) developer James Rouse was hauled off an airplane at Byrd and told to build a mall on Broad Street. He didn't think it was a good idea, neither did the Marriott corporation, which at first wanted to put their building on the riverfront. But Rouse was about pleasing his client. And Marriott wanted their own corporate pay-off to stay in the city.

Project One, devised by majority African Amercian leadership to boost employment in the prostrate central city, ended up wrecking significant portions of historic Jackson Ward. This incredible community has suffered a string of indignities and abuses, most of them at the hands of individuals who were supposedly dedicated to the proposition of "saving" the place.

Similarly, efforts to boost the city resulted in glass and plastic monuments to mediocrity at the fringes of Shockoe that forever eradicated the Great Turning Basin of the James River & Kanawha Canal and a hideous ramp and portion of the downtown expressway obliterated the flight of five canal locks comprising the Tidewater Connection.

Unlike responsible corporate citizen, the late Reynolds Metals, which restored portions of the canal, the developers of the James Center and the Omni Hotel built arrogantly built their Houston-on-the-James atop it while archaeologists, historians and volunteers dived into the muck to bring up remnants of canal boats and artifacts of that long ago era when Richmond was a thriving port city. Those pieces still await a proper home for exhibition, some 20 years afterward, while on Browns Island, some despicable post modern almost fascist architecture arises.

All that said, the Performing Arts Center will essentially bercome a glorified multi-purpose center. It won't create a dynamic generator of synergestic commerical power. This isn't possible. The grand and glorious convention center is supposed to be a main client, but anyody who has ever attended a convention knows that it'll be a rare conventioneer who'll attend a symphony or opera to get the PowerPoint daze out of their eyes. What they usually want is karaoke or something like Have A Nice Day Café. Mahler and Brahms isn't the priority of their evening.

If a jazz club goes into it that can attract national acts , great. If a small blackbox performance space gets installed, even better; though few organizations will be able to pay freight for renting the space. Most likely, a socially sanctioned and underwritten group will get the best dates.

It is absolutely true, however, that the Carpenter Center needs a renovation and improvements. And so does the Landmark. It is also true that the grand old National Theater across Broad Street, miraculously saved by the Historic Richmond Foundation, sits dormant with a convenient parking deck located directly behind it.

Performing Art Center advocates turned up their nose at refitting and modernizing this space, which is Richmond's only remaining Broadway-style theater . They claimed its configuration and acoustics weren't suitable. This strikes of dissembling and disingenuousness. And it is the observation of people who've never performed or admnistrated a performance center, who also hired a consultant who'd confirm their opinions.

What the central city needs is a multi-plex film and entertainment center. That could've been put into the Thalhimers buildng without having to convert it into a hole in the ground. The city further needs to encourage the development of work live spaces for artists, makers and creators throughout the central city, and to support the museums and cultural arts entities that exist and are all strapped for funds.

Furthermore, if it is really desired to get people back into the middle of the city, a light rail or streetcar system is needed. Richmond was the first in the world to have a working electric streetcar. But due to the conspiracy of Goodrich Tire and Rubber and General Motors in the 1930s, some 25 cities ripped up their municipal transit and replaced them with lumbering, chuffing buses. These firms were successfully sued in Illinois federal court and fined a pittance for their monopolizing tactics. It didn't help Richmond in the least, which in 1949 rolled all its trolleys into a Wagnerian pyre.

Almost since they were destroyed various Richmond groups and individuals have tried to reinvent what was wiped away. This is a perfect metaphor: one you get rid of it, you don't get it back.

The Performing Arts Center will probably get built in some shape or another. Too many egos and too much money are invested in this chimera to let it go undone. But it won't become what its authors are promising, and it'll instead evolve into just another project in a litany of them, conceived by literalists who think a silver bullet can revive a sagging downtown. Richmond is addicted to trends that hit the rest of the country a decade or more ago.

Convention and cultural centers are chicken-and-egg predicaments; it is far better that apartments, condos and the retail and commerce they generate are serving to resurrect dormant city streets.